Film Review – World War Z
Zombies, zombies, zombies. Everywhere we turn nowadays, the undead are rising from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living. Movies, TV, books, live action zombie walks: mindless people-eaters are shuffling their way towards the unsuspecting living to eat their brains or convert them into the undead. We’ve got zombie comic books, zombie romantic comedies, emo zombie teen dramas, and all mixtures in between. At this point, we may be reaching saturation of the zombie market.
To add to the mix, we have the new summer blockbuster World War Z. Based on a well-loved novel by Max Brooks, the arc of the film is apparently somewhat different from its source material. The film focuses on Brad Pitt as a former United Nations investigator of political hot zones. He’s retired, leading a quiet family life with his wife, played Mireille Enos (so good on TV’s The Killing), and their two daughters. However, while he’s sitting in traffic in Philadelphia, the world suddenly goes haywire. Explosions erupt, cars crash, people panic, and random people start getting attacked by bug-eyed, frothing-at-the-mouth undead. These early scenes echo the recent Boston Marathon bombings. The physical setting is similar, the harried confusion is palpable, and it all gives the film an immediacy that reflects current real-life fears.
Pitt’s former bosses contact him, evacuate his family to an offshore aircraft carrier being used as a base of operations, and enlist him in helping to find a cure for the worldwide outbreak. Following his journey around the globe from Korea to Jerusalem to Cardiff and Nova Scotia, World War Z truly gains an epic scale. One of the best things about this film is that it truly shows an international epidemic. There’s never been a zombie movie that has shown this much carnage that touches every corner of the globe. Sure, we’ve seen faux news reports before that provide an indication that what’s happening is happening everywhere. But usually the main story revolves around a small, scrappy group in a confined space trying to survive, a la Night of the Living Dead. World War Z, on the other hand, shows real scope. Through well-shot handheld camerawork and mostly convincing special effects, we end up seeing seas of zombies pouring over their victims like giant waves.
Brad Pitt is working from the Steve McQueen/Harrison Ford school of acting here, which is a good thing. We can see him thinking and reacting. Yes, he’s basically the action hero, but he’s not supernaturally strong or ridiculously clever. He just knows how to react in a crisis situation. And he is free of spouting formulaic quips that people in real life would never say when reacting to death, a la the ’80s action hero catchphrase phenomenon. Pitt is believable, grounded, and relatable.
Let’s briefly talk about 3D. Long story short, it probably isn’t necessary for this movie. There are long stretches in which the third dimension is virtually unused. As you can guess, dialogue scenes look normal. There is some added depth to the cityscapes, and the occasional helicopter or airplane hovers over the audience. About a half a dozen times, some genuine scares come from a zombie leaping towards the audience in three dimensions, and that is when its use is most justified. But there are not enough of these moments to have you stuck behind those dim sunglasses for the entire running time of the film.
I have a few complaints about World War Z. Number one is that it needs more blood. Yes, this is supposed to be a realistic take on a zombie apocalypse where we aren’t lingering on shots of brains being eaten and entrails being ripped out; I get that they are trying to avoid exploitation fare. However, there are a few times where the PG-13 trappings hinder the effectiveness of the film. At one point, a hand gets cut off without a single drop of blood seen. Really? No blood? This could have been a point where we get a disturbing portrayal of dismemberment with real stakes to it (think of how effectively this came across in 127 Hours without being a gross-out affair). Instead, it doesn’t impact the audience enough. Another scene has a crowbar stuck in a zombie’s head. While Pitt is trying to retrieve it, the gore is conspicuously below the shot. That would have been far more thrilling with some more explicitness. But, of course, PG-13 means more money. Another problem occurs a couple of times when the main character is putting some clues together in his head that might lead to a cure. We see him thinking, we know what’s going on, but the filmmakers feel it necessary to use voiceovers and flashbacks from earlier in the movie: “For those of you not paying attention earlier, here are the clues again.” It’s a dumbing-down move that betrays the general higher-mindedness of the rest of the film.
But those nitpicks don’t destroy the film. Director Marc Forster has created a thoughtful and compelling zombie tale. Like much science fiction, it works as a metaphor for current fears regarding biological warfare and worldwide chaos. Zombies usually work as credible metaphors for their times. The original Dawn of the Dead was a commentary on consumer culture. Night of the Living Dead works as a depiction of then-current racism. Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland work as both parodies of the genre itself and as reflections of our post-modern era. World War Z has great scope and makes for thoughtful summer blockbuster entertainment. It’s definitely a popcorn movie, but with “brains” as well.